Transnational Democratic Education. A European Perspective

We are happy to share the abstracts for the conference What citizenship education for what democracy? Transnational Perspectives from the 19th to the 21st Century.

Transnational Democratic Education. A European Perspective

Johannes Drerup

The assumption that many of the most pressing contemporary ecological, cultural and political challenges are rooted in genuinely global processes and constellations and therefore cannot be adequately dealt with in a national framework is a recurrent theme in contemporary controversies about transnational conceptions of democratic education. The attempt to develop transnational conceptions of education in and for liberal democracy is, among others, justified by the current almost worldwide success of authoritarian right-wing movements and parties (which is often interpreted as a collateral damage of economic processes of globalization) and the domestic bias of traditional conceptions of democratic education that primarily tend to focus on the nation state as an educational and political framework of reference. 

In my presentation I will first outline a conception of transnational democratic education in and for Europe, which is based on a combination of elements of a deliberative and a liberal perfectionist justificatory political and educational framework. In line with deliberative conceptions of democracy it is based on the idea of a reciprocal justificatory interconnection between an emerging critical transnational public sphere and civil society as an arena of collective deliberation and democratic will-formation, the institutional infrastructure of a transnational European democracy and transnational democratic education for European citizenship. This idea is complemented by the liberal perfectionist guiding principle according to which both personal and political autonomy are constitutive elements of the good life to be fostered in the educational systems across the EU.   

A transnational conception of democratic education in the EU is geared towards a Europeanization of the contents, topics and aims of democratic education in formal (curricula etc.) and informal contexts on the basis of a European idea of education and – in the long run – a European education policy. Central aims include:

– the fostering of a transnational horizon by focusing on global and European problems and topics (climate change etc.) as shared problems and topics, which transcend national boundaries and constitute a shared political fate;

– the provision of knowledge about and of a critical perspective on European institutions and transnational political processes, as well as European history in the context of global history) and associated normative learning processes and historical lessons this should involve (e.g., human rights, democratization concerning a self-critical European commemorative culture);

– the promotion of concrete transnational interactions between citizens (e.g., by implementing a European social service) as well as the

– cultivation of a sense of European identity and European citizenship, an inclusive political self-understanding as European citizen as a basis for collective action for democratization, transnational cooperation and European solidarity.

Transnational democratic education, understood in this way, is one means, among others, to – over time – establish the educational and sociocultural preconditions of the democratization of the EU as a supranational democracy.

Departing from this conception I will, secondly, reconstruct central reasons why a more democratic Europe is a project worth defending and discuss some of the central tensions (e.g., between democracy and liberalism) and challenges this project currently faces. Among the latter are, for instance, the decrease in support for the EU as a transnational political project and for core values and institutions of liberal democracies also among the younger population (crisis of representation etc.), an increasing openness to authoritarian alternatives as well as the tendency in the member states towards the development of democracies, which can only be called free in a restricted sense. Third, I will discuss three contemporary challenges and core problems of a European conception of transnational democratic education. These challenges include, firstly, justificatory problems concerning the central aims of transnational democratic education in Europe, especially the question, how exactly the notion of European identity should be conceived. While critics from the right argue that political identity in the European member states should be understood in cultural-essentialist and nationalistic terms, critics from the left assume that the discourse about European Identity is based on a pseudo-universalist, `Eurocentric´ and essentialist construction of identity that is regressive and repressive towards differences or the `other´. The talk about a European identity, according to this critique, is a political and educational means to justify exclusion and to impose ideological, sociocultural ideas of `the good citizen´ on minorities (and in some cases also majorities) in asymmetrical relations of power. Other critics assume that European identity is an elusive and not realizable idea, because it does not conform with the self-understanding of a vast majority of the population, which tends to identify itself primarily with their nation states and does not support an `ever closer union´. European identity, the critics argue, therefore cannot simply be created and imposed ex cathedra. I will criticize each of these claims by pointing out questionable theoretical and empirical assumption they rely on, and then propose an alternative conception of European identity as a legitimate aim of transnational democratic education. I will argue that European identity, rightly construed, has two dimensions: It is first and foremost based on a universalist core-dimension, a canon of basic liberal-democratic principles and a more `soft´ and dynamic sociocultural dimension, whose changing definition should be the subject of ongoing debates in the emerging European public sphere.

The second critique plausibly assumes that the exact means of transnational democratization as well as the legitimacy of the European project are contested and that not all euro-critical positions are xenophobic, ethnonational and antidemocratic ideologies. Therefore, according to the critique, questions concerning the legitimacy of the EU should be taught as controversial issues in the educational system, otherwise this would constitute a form of indoctrination. My response to this problem acknowledges, that a focus on the educational and cultural preconditions of transnational democracy is certainly biased concerning the overall legitimacy and value of the EU as a transnational democratic project and that education about and for Europe are and should be practically interlinked. This, however, should not be equated with the blind und uncritical affirmation of a particular controversial telos such as the complete dissolution of the nation state, the devaluation of national identity or a concrete policy proposal concerning the political structure of the EU. I will defend the position that transnational democratic education remains legitimate from a liberal point of view as long it stays true to its core principles and aims (personal and political autonomy), which – to a certain extent – have to be respected in the educational process,and as long as it is geared towards a Europeanization of the overall educational framework and of debates in the classroom, without suppressing dissent (within the boundaries of basic liberal principles) and without undermining rational critique and critical discussion. Since – according to recent studies (Eurobarometer 2017) – a vast majority of the European youth seems to endorse a Europeanization of curricula and since the idea of European education is grounded in central liberal-democratic values, whose (universal) validity is not limited by the borders of nation states, I argue that a pro-European bias is educationally and politically justified. The third critique states that transnational democratic education is an overly demanding and unrealistic educational and political ideal, which not only overburdens the educational system with societal tasks and expectations, but also represents a bureaucratic project, which is technocratically imposed on the population of the member states and lacks democratic justification. This critique ignores the central political role of the 19th century school system in the political creation and construction of a national consciousness and civic solidarity, a long-term learning process, which took approx. one century (Habermas). In a similar (but not identical) way, the contemporary and future European school system has a central political role in fostering the educational preconditions necessary for transcending particularist orientations (village, city, nation state, supranational democratic institutions). With respect to charge that the project of transnational democratic education is technocratic and lacks democratic justification, I will argue that to ensure the very possibility and protection of collective democratic self-determination a temporary lack of a transnational democratic justification of transnational educational policies can be justified (for instance, in order to counteract de-democratization processes or the rise of illiberal democracies in member states). This is also due to the theoretical and political problem that the aim of the creation of the educational and sociocultural preconditions of a transnational European democracy over time,inevitably introduces a circular element in deliberative conceptions and justifications of democracy. Without a sufficient democratic consciousness and education, provided by educational institutions, the very preconditions of functioning deliberative processes are not given. Likewise, it cannot, however, be assumed that a majority of voters will provide democratic support for the implementation of the necessary transnational educational programs and infrastructure. Therefore, I argue that a liberal perfectionist justification of basic aims of transnational democratic education has to complement the deliberative model and that a top down, `technocratic´ approach and a bottom-up approach (civil society etc.) are both necessary and legitimate to advance the idea and reality of a transnational European democracy as a democratic and educational project.

Prof. Dr. Johannes Drerup is professor for educational theory and philosophy of education at TU Dortmund as well as guest professor at VU Amsterdam.


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